Re: Children & Family Services Act Advisory Committee
Re: Provincial 211 Information Line
Printed and Published by Nova Scotia Hansard Reporting Services
COMMUNITY SERVICES COMMITTEE
Ms. Marilyn More (Chairman)
Hon. Ronald Chisholm
Hon. Leonard Goucher
Mr. Patrick Dunn
Mr. Gordon Gosse
Mr. Trevor Zinck
Mr. Keith Colwell
Mr. Leo Glavine
Mr. Manning MacDonald
[ Hon. Ron Chisholm was replaced by Mr. Keith Bain. ]
Ms. Charlene Rice
Legislative Committee Clerk
Department of Community Services
Ms. Judith Ferguson
Mr. George Savoury
Executive Director - Family and Community Supports
United Way of Halifax Region
Ms. Catherine Woodman
President & CEO
Mr. Terry Norman
Chair, 211 Nova Scotia Steering Committee
Mr. Robert Wright
Program Manager, 211 Nova Scotia
Mr. Chris Keevill
Chair, United Way of Halifax Region Board of Directors
HALIFAX, TUESDAY, APRIL 1, 2008
STANDING COMMITTEE ON COMMUNITY SERVICES
Ms. Marilyn More
MADAM CHAIRMAN: If I could have your attention, please. We understand our fifth member is on his way so, rather than lose any more time, I'm going to suggest that we start the meeting and have the presentation and we can start questions. You only really need a quorum for any motions or votes. We have a lot of witnesses and resource people here today and I don't want to waste any more of your time, so thank you for your patience.
I'll now call the Standing Committee on Community Services to order. My name is Marilyn More and I'm the committee chairman. We'll start with introductions and you may realize it's unusual, but what we've done is we've piggy-backed two topics together today, so each group will have approximately 50 minutes to present and answer questions.
The committee has a little business to do at the end, so we want to finish before 3:00 p.m. to allow us that time.
The first topic is on the Children and Family Services Act Advisory Committee and our second topic is the Provincial 211 Information Line. So we'll start with introductions.
[The committee members introduced themselves.]
MADAM CHAIRMAN: So, Deputy, we're very pleased to have you here today, and Mr. Savoury, so perhaps you could give us the presentation. I just want to remind committee members that the latest presentation is the one that was on your desk in front of you when you arrived. The one that was sent out by e-mail, you may want to just discard it - this is the revised version.
MS. JUDITH FERGUSON: Thanks, Madam Chairman. As we spoke briefly before the meeting, I'm going to give some very preliminary opening comments and then George has a few minutes just to give a very brief slide presentation, an overview, just to set the legislative framework and to talk briefly about what we're going to discuss this afternoon.
I believe that I know most of you. I'm Judith Ferguson and I have the privilege of being the Deputy Minister of Community Services. I'm pleased to be here today. I have a number of representatives from the department here, both to provide assistance if necessary and, as I've said before, I'm extremely fortunate to work with an exceptional team of people.
I have one of those with me, and that's George Savoury, who I think is no stranger to all of you. Rather than go through his extensive bio, given that we were recently here - as you know, George is the Executive Director of Family and Community Supports but he also brings an additional piece to the table today in that he actually has been a member of some past advisory committees. He actually has experience from sitting on a committee, which I think will be helpful as we go through our discussions today.
While we are talking about the advisory committee this afternoon, I would like to take the opportunity to start off by talking a bit about the complex nature of child welfare and child protection. As all of you know, child welfare staff are exceptional people who work in what is probably one of the most difficult fields that we have. I would personally like to acknowledge and thank them for the challenging and stressful nature of the work they do. We serve approximately 16,000 children and families at any given time in Nova Scotia and there are approximately 2,000 children in the care of the province. This includes a number of care arrangements: temporary care, temporary care and custody, and permanent care and custody. Approximately 70 per cent of the children in permanent care and custody are under the age of 10.
The management of child protection in this province is very much child focused, and I think that's important and I think as we have an opportunity to answer questions today from you, we'll have an opportunity to look into that in a little more detail. While we recognize how difficult and stressful that is for parents and families to have child welfare intervention, ultimately our number-one priority and responsibility is to ensure the safety and well-being of children and youth in this province. Sometimes, under 8 per cent of the time, that means removing a child or children from the home.
Under the Children and Family Services Act, the minister is required to establish an advisory committee to review the provisions of the Act and related services. The Act calls for annual appointments to the committee and annual reporting to the minister concerning the operation of the Act and whether the principles and purpose of the Act are being achieved. The committee is responsible to review the Act and make recommendations to the minister in areas of adoption, child welfare, foster care and other related services under the Act.
The expectation of this committee is to maintain a high level of integrity due to the very sensitive nature of the information that the committee may hear. For example, often members hear guest speakers who may have had direct experience with child welfare so there is the need to be respectful and highly confidential of that information.
Appointments to the committee include - and George will get into this in a bit more detail, because this is regulated by Statute - two people whose children have been or are or may be in need of protective services; a representative from a child welfare agency; a representative of the minister; a legal aid lawyer; two people drawn from the cultural, racial or linguistic minority communities; and three other representatives as determined by the minister.
I certainly acknowledge - and I'm sure we'll have an opportunity to discuss in more detail today - the fact that there have been challenges with the appointment process and the preparation of annual reports to the minister. In regard to the appointment process there have been recruitment issues. The membership of the committee is defined in the Act and is intended to reflect the community we serve. The requirements of the Act attempt to ensure that the committee is diverse and reflective of the interests of stakeholders in the community at large. It has proven to be challenging on occasion to find appropriate candidates.
Secondly, the Act is a highly regulated piece of legislation to protect the safety and security of Nova Scotia children and youth. So the review of the Act should not be in a piecemeal approach, but rather it should be in a holistic manner as to not compromise the intent of any given piece or part of the Act.
To date, the minister has received four advisory committee reports and will receive a fifth report in the very near future. While government has not made changes to the legislation since we've received these reports, I'm very pleased to say that we have made a number of policy and regulatory changes that have been recommended by the various committees. I also feel I should say that a number of the recommendations that have been made in the past by the various committees have not required legislative change, so they are things we can do by policy, or by regulation. Certainly those are easier to make and we can make them on a far quicker basis.
A few examples of this are: we have built recognition of cultural, racial and linguistic factors into case planning training and policy, that was from the 1993 report; we implemented secure treatment by opening the Wood Street Centre, which was raised in the 1993 and 1996 reports. In the 1996 report, it was recommended to offer services to promote the integrity of the family and we hired a new category of staff, called family support workers, and placed them in all agencies and offices.
We eliminated fees associated with the Adoption Disclosure Program that came from 1999, and we fund multiple community-based prevention programs across the province. That also was a recommendation from the 1999 report.
We look forward to working with members of the current Advisory Committee and I should say very much that the department values very much the work, dedication and commitment that all of the members of the advisory committees over the years have brought to the department. Obviously sometimes these are difficult discussions - people donate their time to us, they've taken the process extremely seriously and we know have done their best to come up with recommendations that will benefit children and families. That's certainly an encouraging and important thing.
In closing, Madam Chairman, I'd like to thank you and the committee for the opportunity to discuss the committee and also the very important work that's done in our child welfare sector. I would like to thank, as I have all of the members of the committee past and present, and certainly all members of the department and the child welfare agencies who deliver child welfare work on a daily basis. We are always looking for ways to improve our services and programs in the department and both George and I look forward to speaking with you today and to providing you with more specific information in relation to your questions. Thank you very much.
With that, Madam Chairman, I'll turn it over to George for a few minutes just to go through his presentation.
MR. GEORGE SAVOURY: Thank you, Judith. I'll probably skip over some things that I think may have been covered. Basically the authority for the Act comes out of Section 88(1) and it's to really advise on the operations of the Act and services related to it.
Judith has already covered the makeup of the committee and there is a screening selection process and there's a departmental screening committee and they screen only for qualifications. Then candidates are presented to Executive Council for approval.
As you know, there's an all-Party Standing Committee on Human Resources, which is the committee for final approval. We place advertisements twice a year in various newspapers and on Eastlink Channel 8 for members. That's for all the different committees, as you know within government.
I thought I'd just put up this slide because a perennial recommendation of the committees thus far has been that one year is inadequate for them to really do their job, for someone to get on a committee, get familiar with the Act, seek input and then try and get a report done within a 12-month period. If you ever had a chance to read previous reports, they will tell you that that is really an unrealistic expectation.
I thought I'd just show you a few others, if you see the Law Reform Commission of Nova Scotia, it's three years and the Board of Examiners in Psychology it's three and the Gaming Corporation it's five.
The other thing about the business we're in is that it really can't be looked at in isolation of other developments and committees will frequently spend time discussing child poverty and the impact of poverty on children and families. So the work of the social prosperity framework, the Nunn Commission Report, of course, is solely focused on children and youth and needing supports for children and families. You had the pleasure of Robert Wright being at one of your committees where he talked about the strategy and the pilots that are being rolled out as part of that, and of course the report, Our Kids Are Worth It, and also one of Commissioner Nunn's recommendations was that there be a greater focus in government on prevention services and that led to the creation of the Family and Youth Services section in the Department of Community Services.
Most of the committee's recommendations have been more on service improvements, if you had a chance to look at previous reports, rather than legislative changes. There probably would be something wrong with a piece of legislation that should be annually revised - someone would probably tell you that it's not a very good piece of legislation if you've got to be annually revising it.
All Acts at some point require tweaking or amendments and I'm sure at some point government will make some changes to the Act as part of its legislative agenda. As Judith said, we see children and we see families and youth at their best and we see families going through the most difficult times, when children are abused physically, sexually or emotionally. Unfortunately there are times we have to bring children into care to protect them, which leads obviously to criticisms of the agencies and staff. Unfortunately it's part of their job that we expect them to do under the Act.
The other thing I should point out, of course, is that our Act is very stringent in that if we do take a child into care we have to be in court within five days to have our decision sanctioned and a very tight review process as part of the court process. So thank you, Madam Chairman, and members of the committee.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you. So we'll start our first round of questions on this topic. Who would like to go first? Trevor.
MR. TREVOR ZINCK: I'll open up. Thank you, Madam Chairman. You can cut me off when you feel I've had too much time and then I'll continue on after.
I want to thank the staff for coming out and I also want to take the time to recognize the efforts of all staff who come in contact with children who are either at risk or are in our care. It's a huge responsibility. I know that currently there's probably a crisis right now
within the system of qualified social workers who aren't under stress, dealing with some issues that they have to. So I want to commend them for their efforts.
That being said, it's a huge responsibility that we're taking on. I know for the last two years this committee has been of some concern of mine, and my Party's as well. Deputy, you stated that the last report that actually came out of this, you quoted several years - 1993, 1996 and 1999. In 2005 Graham Steele had actually taken the department to court to have this committee re-instituted. It has been, but I know for a fact that the last number of years - and I know the minister does as well and the lines of questioning through budgetary processes - that I am concerned that this has been an inactive committee.
So I guess my first question would be, has there actually been a report come from this committee, of recommendations for change, since 2005, or in the last year and a half?
MR. SAVOURY: There has been a committee operating. The judge basically required that our minister have the committee up and running as a result of the court action by that December, which we met.
I should say that despite the advertisements that go out in the newspapers, not everyone watches these advertisements. We probably see them but not everybody is looking to be a member of this committee. In fact it's not uncommon that even for the positions on the committee that you'd think someone might apply for, I could pick a lawyer from Nova Scotia Legal Aid as one of the requirements. Well, it often means us having to phone Legal Aid and probably make a number of calls to see if there's someone who could be prevailed upon to make themselves available to serve on the committee.
What we learned from the court action that was initiated was that we really need people in all of the categories. We strive for that, sometimes it can take a period of time to have a fully functioning committee. But anyway, the committee has been up and running since that order and they've been meeting regularly and we're expecting a final report any day now from that committee.
MR. ZINCK: How many vacancies are on the committee as of to date?
MR. SAVOURY: There are three vacancies.
MR. ZINCK: What positions would they fall under, as far as the membership requirements?
MR. SAVOURY: One would be a general member, in terms of which the minister can determine; there's a provision for three members at the end of the list, as you saw. We have one vacancy from a parent and two from the cultural-racial-linguistic - however, one
of the members who served a term has reapplied to be on that committee. So we have two going through the process now to be reappointed.
MR. ZINCK: Okay, we obviously know there's a problem with recruitment for this committee and, again, I want to compliment those who have come out and sat. Some of the stories that you do hear, it's very difficult. However, we know that there is an issue, so I think one of the things we have to do is maybe readdress or try to figure out how we can get into a better form of advertising to those parents, those two positions that are filled by parents.
It is so crucial that the minister have feedback coming from parents. Maybe it's somebody in the foster care system who has benefited and maybe wants to tell their story, so we can learn from that. What it seems like is that we haven't really actively gone out and sought out people to hear their stories. I know when the committee was first struck a year and a half ago, there were people who were actually turned down because they weren't allowed to present. They were allowed to make a written submission, but they weren't allowed to present. I think we have to do a much better job at that.
Now, the other problem with this, as well, is that parents who have been affected, whether positively or negatively, don't know when these committees are meeting. How does that get advertised? How do they know that there is a voice, other than the MLA's office, that is willing to listen to their cases and take their concerns forward to the department? How does that happen?
MR. SAVOURY: Well, we give the committee - as you could see in the terms of reference, they have tremendous scope. They invite organizations to present, they've often done surveys, they've advertised in the newspapers that they're open to feedback. We've had committees that have travelled to different parts of the province . . .
MR. ZINCK: This particular committee?
MR. SAVOURY: We've never placed - not that there's an inordinate amount of money where we live, but we've never said there aren't funds to go to different places or for advertising. So the committee has considerable discretion and always the committee, when it makes its report, we're always struck by the large number of submissions and how they reached out.
Like any committee, there's always room for improvement, but we basically let the chairman and the members shape how they're going to get information. They have full and open discourse in what they're going to recommend.
But it is a challenge to fill, as you point out, some of the positions on the committee. We've actually tried different things over the years. We've approached family resource centres and said, well, maybe if two parents from the ones who are involved with the centre, maybe where they know each other, they feel more comfortable, it's not so intimidating. At our level we wouldn't have known who the parents were, which was great. We said, could we call the agency and said, could you approach the centre and see if families would apply?
There's a further issue, as well, that I should mention. The names, when they go before the Human Resources Committee, become public and we've had folks - actually parents - who have decided to withdraw when we notified them and said, by the way, this afternoon your name may become public and your resumé. With the professional folks, I don't really think it's an issue, like the lawyers with legal aid. But when we let parents know that, they've said, please remove my application.
MR. ZINCK: That's because it's public knowledge who they are?
MR. SAVOURY: That's correct, when it goes before the Human Resources Committee.
MR. ZINCK: Okay, I can submit two names right now who are willing to go and they have full qualifications. Who would I submit that to - would it be the standing committee?
MR. SAVOURY: There's a Web site and they can apply on-line or in writing to the Office of Executive Council and it's all there.
MS. FERGUSON: It's the same process for all non-adjudicative boards, so it's the exact same process. So the application process is there, it's all on-line for people to apply.
MR. ZINCK: So this committee is up and running, fully functional, meeting on a regular basis?
MR. SAVOURY: That's correct, yes. They probably meet every three to four weeks, and in some cases they meet as frequently as weekly to get their report done.
MR. ZINCK: I'll end on this, if I can. I actually had the opportunity to sit in, as you're probably aware, on some of the most recent presentations. Part of the problem that I had with what had taken place was the fact that the only members on the committee who were there were representing the minister or the department. As a presenter coming in - actually two of the ladies who were presenting had their former social workers there, so you can imagine the frustration with them feeling that they had nobody else who would or could support them, knowing what their social workers had said in the past. It's crucial - I don't know what we have to do but we have to do a better job.
I have cases coming from the U.S., people contacting me now, who have been affected by our system here. How do they get their stories heard? Who do they reach out to? We're less than one million in this province and we have 2,000 kids in care - that's more than the Province of Ontario. It's important that we take the steps to get this committee up and running. It has been a frustration of mine for the last year and a half and I'll continue to question it until we get a full committee, until we actually get a report that would have been useful in adopting and looking at it for the Child and Youth Strategy. That would have been an important piece to see, but when we see a report that we haven't - well, since 1999, I guess. This committee is part of the Act and it is important that we have regular reports.
I think the term thing has to be frustrating for the chairman to coordinate all of this and feel like they can reach out and do all these things and use the monies necessary to go hear the people. But if we don't have the commitment of actually putting the effort forward to have this important committee put together, we're not going to really get the true answers.
MS. FERGUSON: You're right but I think some of the challenges that you've raised, which are very legitimate concerns, are pieces that we need to look at in terms of the bigger picture about what is the best way to provide input into the Act. The term issue is clearly - I mean, I think they're symptoms of a bigger piece and I think now, because of the work we have going on, it's not just good enough for us to look in terms of the Act. We need to look at it in terms of the youth strategy and the work that we're doing more collaboratively across government to say, what does that mean for child welfare and how do we look at that as a system.
I think there are a couple of wonderful things that have happened in terms of that work, that we now have an opportunity to say okay, this is an opportunity, so how do we look at the role of that committee? What does it mean in terms of the Act, what is the way to get the best input into change, the most meaningful input that helps everybody really move forward? I'm hopeful that if we're able to take on some of those bigger pieces, that some of those challenges you've mentioned should be addressed. That would be my hope.
MR. ZINCK: Thank you.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Manning.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Thank you, Madam Chairman. I've been scribbling some comments down here. First of all I'd like to echo the comments of my friend in the NDP and welcome you here today. There are some comments I would like to make and perhaps, if you want to react to them, that's fine and if not, that's fine too.
I believe the term issue is one that should be of concern to all of us. I believe, as you do, that terms are too short for an important committee like this. If the people who would aspire to be on that committee have any hope of making any meaningful changes or making
any legislation changes that might be appropriate, they simply don't have the time to do that with their mandate. I would also tell you that it would probably be fair to say there is not a stampede of people out there wanting to get on this committee and the reasons for that are many, I guess. One of the things is the whole idea of liability issues when it comes to children's welfare in this province and the legal issues surrounding that.
I believe that people get scared away when they figure they might be in the firing line of some intrepid lawyers who are trying to make a case for a particular situation and are aiming their guns at board members about, it's their fault this is not working because of policies. I think a lot of people may be scared off by that. They are certainly not wanting to get on that committee for the money, I can tell you that. So those who do want to get on it, I suggest to you, are very dedicated people in the first place. It is of less concern to me who appoints them than it is to have people who are actually wanting to get on the committee because of their sincere interest in what's going on surrounding the whole question of the Children and Family Services Act.
I'm sure Nova Scotians, not unlike any other place, unless a problem concerns you personally with your own children and that, you tend not to want to know what is going on with somebody else's children. You have some people who like to feel they're engaged but most people are saying, I have enough problems in my own household, I don't need to know about somebody else's. Therein lies a lot of the problems that you deal with in Children and Family Services.
The people on the front lines, and I speak from some experience having spent 10 years in Community Services at the municipal level - Social Services it was called in the grand old days of the 1970s - I found that one of the hardest things I had to do as a municipal social service worker was to report activity in a family to the Children's Aid Society, in those days. That was really heart-wrenching because of the fact that you knew what was going to happen after that. The social workers would then take an active role in the family's day-to-day matters and would then become involved in the family directly and then it was a consultative process between myself and our other workers, in this case, in the City of Sydney and the CAS regarding a particular family. That is very traumatic for a family when you have agencies sitting down discussing the future of your children, really. So it was very difficult.
I figured at that time burnout was around 10 years - for me, it lasted nine and then I went on to much easier jobs like the Mayor of Sydney and a provincial Cabinet Minister. I tell you, it was very much an experience that I wouldn't want to go through again. The reason I'm saying that, deputy minister, is that I have a great deal of respect for child protection workers and those who work in the community services field, particularly those who are out there because there are liability issues, there are judgment calls and the social workers have to, in this day and age, balance that off with their desire to see the best possible outcome for the children that they're serving. That is a very delicate line and I am not one who is going
to heap criticism on the department in that regard at all because I know people who have been there. I have siblings who are social workers and one of them is working for the CAS right now in Ontario and she's having some difficulties up there with her role to the point that she's thinking about retiring because it is just getting to her. So I have a great deal of respect for them and from that point of view, you're in the public eye all the time.
I can recall particularly the CAS in Cape Breton with the recent publicity surrounding some cases in the Children's Aid Society in Cape Breton and what a traumatic experience that has been for everybody involved, not the least of which are the social workers who have been involved in those cases. I say cases because there has been more than one and that is inevitably going to happen in this kind of business that we're in.
I just want to say that I wish your social workers well as they continue to do their job on behalf of Nova Scotians and certainly any support that I can give the department in that regard I will certainly try to do my best on that. There aren't any people, Deputy, knocking down my door wanting me to support them to get on this committee, I'll tell you that, and that's unfortunate but that's exactly the way it is. With those few comments, if you want to comment back to me, fine, but I don't really have any questions other than that.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Do you want to respond in any way?
MR. SAVOURY: I think I would concur with the comments - it is a very difficult business, as we've said earlier. We're fortunate in our province in terms of the calibre of staff we have working. The other thing I should point out is that of the reports we've received, the recommendations have not been ignored by any means. The 1996 report recommended secure care, which is now a reality. There were recommendations for a child advocate and, instead of doing that, we engaged in discussions with the Ombudsman's Office and, in 1999, set up a specific section dealing with children and youth whereby the Ombudsman visits Wood Street regularly and gives us a report and their staff meet independently with youth there to hear their issues and concerns.
The whole issue of 16 to 18 years of age is one of great debate right across the country as to what should be the age of a child. Most of the reports have struggled with that and if you go across the country you'll find some provinces, like Ontario, where it's 16 and if you go to B.C. it's 19, so we're no different. But we have done things that make a big difference - we can extend care up to age 19 and actually to 21 for health and education reasons. We now go up to 24 to cover all the tuition, books and accommodations for a child in care to complete their post-secondary. We have the best program in the country in that we're the only province in the country that set a workload standard for social workers and we believe our staff are pretty much at that level pretty consistently or below. We've added additional staff, so we have made improvements.
One of the reports recommended that we make legislative amendments around the rights of children and youth in care. While we didn't put it in the Act, we did develop a booklet for youth when they come into care - and I'll leave copies for the members - which we require all youth in care to get a copy of so they know their rights and responsibilities. I could keep going but we do study the reports carefully and look at what we can do to act on them.
I think we're fortunate that the committee has been up and running and I know Trevor's earlier comments about people showing up and you don't see the full committee is a concern. I'm sure the chair of the committee would always make sure members know when meetings are taking place, but I would suspect many of these people could have other jobs, or they're parents or volunteers. They're not always able to show up at the meetings, which is unfortunate. We cover travel costs - the committee has money to cover travel. They get a small per diem for the days they sit as a member, but I'm sure it is not for the $45 a day that they choose to join this committee. We've covered babysitting if there are child care issues, but it's still a struggle.
We will keep the committee going, it meets even when they don't have a quorum and they haven't defined what is a quorum, which is probably good in many respects or maybe they would even cancel more meetings.
MS. FERGUSON: Madam Chairman, if I could just add one quick one for a second. I just wanted to thank the member for his comments because I think, again, it speaks to the fact that the challenge is to ensure that we get meaningful input into the legislation from the people we need to hear from in a way that makes sure the department is hearing everything it needs to hear. While we're doing our best under these current circumstances, it's something that we are considering, appointment times and the rotation of that obviously is part of that. But I think his comments reflect the fact that it's something we need to be thinking about and I just want to assure people that we are thinking about it. The other thing is, I appreciate his comments very much about our staff. Unfortunately, in terms of child welfare, what most members of the public hear about child welfare are the most difficult cases. Obviously the department can't comment on those cases.
Our staff do incredible work on a daily basis and there are lots of wonderful, good, positive things every day that happen in child welfare that obviously we hear about but obviously those aren't the things, unfortunately, that people hear about on a daily basis. I do just want to say that our staff work incredibly hard and go above and beyond every day to do everything they can to make sure that children stay with their families. Now unfortunately, that's not always possible, but certainly that is where their best efforts are made and there are very positive things going on in child welfare every day right across the province. Thank you, Madam Chairman.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you. I do want to speak on this. Keith, do you want to ask any questions? No. Would you mind taking the Chair then please?
[1:48 p.m. Mr. Keith Colwell took the Chair.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: How long have you got? (Laughter)
MS. MARILYN MORE: If I need it, 10 minutes, and then we probably should wrap up and go on to the next topic.
I'm glad you're here, and welcome. I think one of the reasons that this topic was added to our agenda is not because we want to criticize staff or programming or whatever. We realize that this advisory committee has an important function in our province. I know certainly our caucus feels that it has to have a much higher priority in terms of functioning well and openly.
I don't think there's one MLA in this province who wouldn't say that the most heart-rending issues that ever face them, in terms of their workload, are the child welfare stories and issues that come into our offices and through our critic areas. Some of the stories, you lose sleep over them because they're such dilemmas that there's no right answer. I think we all understand how complex these issues are, how emotional and personal they are, and there are many sides to every issue. I mean, you hear one story and you sort of peel away the layers and you get more and more information and you have absolutely no idea what to recommend as next steps to the people involved.
I think that's one reason this advisory committee is so important, because it's the symbol, I think, to a lot of families in this province that the department is open to changes and improvements based on the best interests of the children in their care. Unless we have a fully functioning, operational committee that is sort of user-friendly for the people on it and user-friendly for the people who want to be heard by it, we're missing out, I think, on an opportunity to make things better for children in care in particular, and also other people covered under this Act.
I'm not going to lecture you on how to make a committee more welcoming. I mean there are people in this province with experience who, I think, can help with that process. We have to make that process work. I don't think there's anyone involved with child welfare who doesn't admit that there have to be some significant systemic changes and improvements.
The Nunn inquiry report, I mean it listed all sorts of gaps in services and failures along the way. When you read the HRM reports on homelessness, they talk a lot about how many of the homeless on the streets of HRM are previously youth who used to be in the care of the department. Now, I'm not saying the department has caused this, but these are youth with extreme challenges and they obviously need more help than they are currently getting.
Now, I sometimes wonder, too, about to what extent we've taken seriously the recommendations from earlier committees because I know when I first got elected, one of the first topics in front of this committee was the Wood Street Centre. It seemed that the original recommendation was for secure treatment there and it has turned into a facility that's providing emergency care, not treatment. So I think there are some serious gaps that the department officials have to be looking at, that all relate back to this advisory committee.
How much of a priority is it? Actually, we're regulated to have it so where is the accountability in terms of how well it's functioning and this lost opportunity not to be using it to improve things? I mean, how can we rationalize the spotty existence it's had over the last 10, 13 years?
MS. FERGUSON: I'll start and then maybe George can jump in. There's no question that there have been challenges around the committee. I think, though, the fact now and certainly since my time in the department, the amount of effort that has been put into appointments, reappointments, advertising, finding people to sit on the committee, has certainly been at the level - at that point I was the assistant deputy minister - that I was well aware of it. I was involved, the deputy minister was aware of it, and George's staff and other staff in our department have made great efforts. Now, not always perfect and you can always say that we could have done more, but certainly it's been a priority and there have been significant efforts, I would say.
George had the advertising up earlier, I mean we've tried to advertise in newspapers and other places, like Street Feat, like the Mi'kmaq community. We've really tried to make some inroads to try to get some candidates specifically to the areas that we're looking at and we've tried to advertise in a way and get the word out in a way, and though our network, too, in the department, that will hopefully attract candidates. So that's a challenge.
We've made some steps forward, I think, and we can look at that again. There's no question that things like the yearly appointment process - and all of you are certainly aware that the appointment process in and of itself, in terms of just getting people through, we're working on that, as well, in terms of just making sure from a timeline perspective that we're there. But if we didn't have to go through that on a yearly basis, certainly I think that would be an advantage.
The other thing that I'm glad you raised is, you brought up the Nunn piece and you brought up some of the bigger challenges in terms of not just this department but I would say that government has or that as Nova Scotians we have, in terms of challenges with our youth. I think it's important that however we move forward, this Act is a piece and child welfare is a piece of a system that includes our colleagues in Justice and Education and Health, and I think when Commissioner Nunn was looking at that what he said is there needs to be much better coordination.
So I think what's also important is to say, what is the child welfare role in that? How do we maximize and leverage all of our other colleagues and our programs across the system to make sure we're doing it in a way that provides a continuum of services for children, that we're maximizing the services available, and that there isn't a navigation problem in terms of being able to access services from a number of different departments? The discussions we've been having - having the social prosperity framework has provided us with the opportunity to have with our staff really exciting discussions of being able to say, okay, what are the kinds of services that child, that family, that community needs? What are the kinds of ways that we, as a government, need to deliver services to that child or to that family? They shouldn't have to worry necessarily which department the services are coming from. They need to ensure that they're able to get the services.
So as we look at reviewing child welfare and the services that are provided under child welfare, I think it's incumbent on me and on us, in Community Services, to say if we're taking the approach that Commissioner Nunn and the social prosperities now provide us with the opportunity to take - to take it on a broader scale. My hope would be that we're actually providing enhanced services, and in a way that's better, and that as civil servants we're doing it with our colleagues in the various departments and we're actually looking at the services.
To quote my colleague from the Department of Education, he would say in government, unfortunately, we all have part of a child. Sometimes they're working with Education, they're working with Justice, they're working with Health, maybe they're working with us. So it's our responsibility to say what the services are that we provide to that child and do it in a way that makes sense for that child and that family.
Now, we are not there yet and that's not going to happen overnight, but we're having some very exciting discussions around how to do that in a much better way. So I think this Act, the committee, the role it plays and it needs to be a priority - I agree with you on that - needs to be put in that context so that when we get feedback from that committee, it's on that broader context.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. You're over your 10 minutes now, if you want to . . .
MS. MORE: Can I just close then?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Sure.
MS. MORE: I agree with the big picture issues that you've talked about but I think some of the stated challenges for the committee, the length of term, they're a bit of a red herring in a way because I think you can make this committee welcoming and fully functioning by making it a less intimidating process. If the Children and Family Services Act isn't an important or critical piece of this new vision of where we're going in this
comprehensive range of programming, then there's something seriously wrong. So I think to most Nova Scotians who are interested or involved in these issues, that this advisory committee is seen as a symbol of how well everything else is operating. So I think you have a high responsibility to make sure that it has full membership, that it's listened to seriously, that the agenda covers the issues that it needs to cover, that it actually looks at reviewing and improving the Act.
I think we have an opportunity here to rebuild credibility in our child welfare system and I think this advisory committee could be an important part of it. So thank you very much and thank you, Mr. Chairman.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Just with that, we'll wrap up your part of the meeting with your final comments. If you can answer that question at the same time, it would be great, thank you.
MR. SAVOURY: Thank you. I would just like to say that we do things that we believe are important to make the members feel welcome. We meet with the new committee when they start off and commend them for applying. We also put a person on the committee, a staff member who can help them in terms of logistics, of booking meetings. We provide meeting space, so we do these things. We also make it a point that they get to present their report to the minister in person and to senior staff, we believe that's extremely important. As soon as there's a vacancy, we start looking to see if there are people applying. So we do different things. Obviously we haven't been as successful as we'd like, but the committee is up and running and we're committed to keeping it up and running.
I totally agree with your comments - you probably deal with no more stressful situations. Even when parents lose their children the pain is, I'm sure, phenomenal and it's no easy situation to deal with.
We do increasingly spend more on resources to enable that children and youth and families do better. We spend $7.5 million on preventative services, $2 million to Phoenix House and organizations like the Y and Big Brothers, Big Sisters. We spend a little over $5 million on counselling for children and families, because our Act requires that we have to offer services if we believe they could protect the child and the children could stay with their families. So we believe these are all important.
Finally, I would say in terms of Wood Street, we believe that they do provide treatment. There is a clinical team, there is access to a psychiatrist, we have access to a psychologist and a social worker. Sure, it went through its growing pains as a new facility, but we believe the staff there have done a great job in the short period that they've been
there. But it's only one part of the continuum and it can't be all things to all children and youth, but I appreciate your comments.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Deputy Minister, do you have any wrap-up comments?
MS. FERGUSON: I know we're short for time, but I'd just like to very sincerely thank you for the opportunity and for your interest. It's an extremely important issue and I'm always interested in your thoughts. We've heard some really positive comments and things for us to think about today, so I thank you very much for your insights. I want to assure you that we take your comments very seriously and it's been very helpful for us, so thank you very much.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you.
[2:03 p.m. Ms. Marilyn More resumed the Chair.]
MADAM CHAIRMAN: So we've now been joined by officials from United Way of Halifax Region. We thank you very much for your patience. Our next topic is the Provincial 211 Information Line.
I think you've seen the procedure. We'll give you an opportunity to make a presentation and then we'd like to ask some questions and then you'll have a chance to wrap up at the end. We should probably finish around 2:45 p.m. to allow us - I realize that shortens your time, but we do have some other committee business to do before we depart.
I think you've met everyone. Yes, Keith Bain is replacing the Honourable Ronald Chisholm from the Progressive Conservative caucus and we're very pleased to have him here to make our quorum. Thank you so much.
MR. KEITH BAIN: I apologize for being late.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: No, we're just relieved you're here, thank you. So would you like to introduce yourselves and start.
MS. CATHERINE WOODMAN: Okay, thank you so much, Madam Chairman, and committee participants. I'm Catherine Woodman, President and CEO of United Way, Halifax Region. I'm joined here today on my left by Terry Norman, who is a member of the United Way Board and also a member of the National 211 Steering Committee; on my right is Chris Keevill, who is the Chairman of the Board of Directors of United Way; and finally, on my far right is Robert Wright, the 211 subject matter expert, if you will, who supports us on staff at United Way.
We're really delighted to have this opportunity. We know you've had a very full agenda this winter and we're pleased and grateful that you've given us a chance to present to you on 211. Our objective here today is twofold: at minimum we're hoping to raise awareness and support among key decision makers in our province for 211, and our greatest outcome is for some active support in the upcoming budgetary process.
United Way is internationally recognized as a community-building organization. It's our vision to be a leader in building an extraordinary community and we work to accomplish this, as you may or may not be familiar, by raising and then investing resources - both financial and human - in ways that bring people and organizations together to build neighbourhoods and to leverage upon strengths that already exist and reside in our community. We forge partnerships and measure tangible results in order to make positive change in social conditions.
Today, as we've just witnessed, our society is complex with overwhelming needs that are not distinct and isolated, but rather deeply entwined and interconnected. Simple calls for help get mired in a complex maze of busy phone lines, voice messaging and a myriad of unconnected service providers and volunteers. Frustration leads to the assumption that we need more and improved services and while that may be the case, at United Way we firmly believe that it is wiser to invest in improving the path, improving the access to the many solid services that already exist across both government, as well as the private and voluntary sectors.
Since 2002, the six United Ways across Nova Scotia have been working together to bring the 211 information and referral system to this province. As I said, it's an information and referral system that connects people to the full range of non-emergent social, health and government services. Accredited specialists answer 211 calls, in person, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They assess the needs of a caller and then they link the callers to the best available information or services that reside in their community. They do so by consulting a comprehensive and continuously maintained database.
In Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton where 211 already exists, this is particularly useful for vulnerable groups such as newcomers, the elderly, homeless, physically and mentally challenged, as well as their families. This kind of coordinated, integrated solution fosters self-reliance, improves local knowledge and makes a measurable difference to reinforce the social safety net. It gives hope and it gives help through rapid and humane responses to individuals seeking help.
I know and appreciate that several of the committee members are already familiar with 211, so I'm going to focus briefly on recent developments, recent information which would reinforce, in our opinion, why this is a prudent public investment which will have a positive impact on government efficiency.
First, in addition to conducting extensive community consultation across this province a number of years ago, we've recently done some polling. Working with both Bristol and Corporate Research Associates, we've learned that 68 per cent of Atlantic Canadians dread the thought of using an automated answering services for customer service; 86 per cent of Nova Scotians completely or mostly support the concept of a 211 information system for this province; and 66 per cent say they know they would use that service.
A 2007 impact study, which was conducted on behalf of the 211 centre that already exists in the Niagara region, interviewed the top 10 referred agencies. These would be the organizations, including government but not exclusive to government, that are receiving the greatest number of referrals, the greatest number of clients who are calling them directly as a result of getting the information about their services from the 211 system. They report that 86 per cent of those top 10 agencies report that 211 allows them more time to focus on what their true mandate is; 70 per cent of those agencies say 211 helps them serve their clients better; and 48 per cent of those same agencies use 211 themselves as a research tool to navigate the systems that surround them.
The start-up costs for 211 in Nova Scotia would be less than $500,000. Operational costs would start at $800,000 a year, with increased citizen usage reaching a maximum of about $950,000 but less than $1 million in the fifth year when there's maximum utilization. I know this is a lot of money, but I remind you this represents less than 1/100th of 1 per cent of the provincial annual budget.
Deloitte was commissioned to determine if there's a return on investment and Deloitte calculates that quantifiable benefits today would total $2.7 million annually. These benefits are derived in reduced unemployment, volunteer brokering - yes, finding people to serve on committees and responding to individuals who want to serve in their communities - time saved by service providers and service users, fewer misdirected calls, reduced inappropriate calls to 911, and then a very important opportunity to leverage this service as a long-term community planning tool.
You must agree that when citizens thumb through the blue pages uncertain of their own needs, let alone the available solutions, how satisfied they are with the services that government is providing. Drivers of customer satisfaction with government services include timeliness, competence, fairness and the ultimate outcome. An accredited information and referral service offering 211, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, would be a necessary make-over that this government is ready for.
Since we last presented this concept to this committee in 2006, the United Ways in Nova Scotia have now been joined by 182 other community-based organizations in this province. These 211 believers, as we're calling them, stand here with us today and we've brought you the list of their names, in asking you to support this service. It includes hospitals,
libraries, churches, family service centres, food banks and fire halls. The full list, as I say, is in the package we're providing.
Also since 2006, six new sites have been approved for 211 centres including Quebec City and Ottawa. Just this year, 2008, British Columbia and Ontario have committed to providing funding for provincial-wide 211 service centres in those provinces. It's now been anticipated that this year, 50 per cent of Ontario and 80 per cent of the United States will have access to 211.
Finally, we've taken steps at the United Way to move forward. We are incorporating 211 and I'm pleased to let you know that Chuck Hartlen, Senior Vice-President, Customer Experience, Bell Atlantic, is now chairing the inaugural board of 211 Nova Scotia. Chuck has the determination, experience and drive to serve this project well. He regrets that he wasn't able to be here today, he has pressing business with Aliant.
So what are we asking you for, in conclusion? Yes, we're asking that you directly support a province-wide 211 initiative that is currently being considered by Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, and we ask that you approve a motion to support 211 in order to advance our progress on this very important initiative. We very much welcome your questions.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much. Who would like to begin questions? Manning.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: By way of a comment, you've convinced me. I've heard about this before and it's something, I think, its time has come. Again, we find ourselves playing catch-up to some of the other major centres in the country on this but nevertheless, it is being considered. Madam Chairman, I'm not going to talk about all of the good reasons why this should be implemented because they're self-evident. I'd like to make a motion if it's . . .
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Actually, if you don't mind just holding on to it until we have a chance for everyone to have a few comments or questions, Manning, and I'll come back to you.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Sure, okay.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much. Trevor.
MR. ZINCK: Madam Chairman, unlike my colleague I will take a few moments to say some good things, and I do concur with him as well on the importance of it. I wanted to
start by saying thank you to the United Way for all of the work that they do in our communities across this province and across this country. I think it's very valuable and it's a unique tool that government sometimes relies on for your assistance to enable companies and individuals to grow, so thank you - and thank you for also being involved in the community of Dartmouth North, currently.
The 211 idea was presented several months ago to several of the MLAs you had spoken to, I think it's a valuable tool. When people come to our offices, usually a large part of the time is spent on negotiating and navigating the system for those individuals. Sometimes issues are pressing, perhaps a 211 representative may not be able to delve into them, some of them you have heard in the previous presentations. However, the fact that we are encouraging immigrants to come here, our senior population, perhaps an individual is widowed and they don't know what step to take, what program, who to call, they might not know that the MLA could help them.
This is a very valuable tool, especially knowing that somebody is on the other end of the line who can actually point them in the right direction, that somebody is actually willing to hear them out and perhaps guide them to the right spot, even though they haven't come with the right questions, that is very valuable. It would be a tool that I would fully promote in my community as an MLA and use as a tool. I think it's very beneficial.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Keith.
MR. COLWELL: Yes, I, too, want to thank the United Way for the fantastic work you do in my community - the many organizations that you support that have definitely made a difference in a lot of young people's lives and I want to thank you for that. I had a meeting with one of the community organizations you support and they speak very highly of what you do with them and help them with, and I think very highly of them and they've made a difference in many young people's lives. It's very worthwhile.
I believe the 211 is an excellent process and as you know, our caucus introduced a bill in the Legislature supporting it, so we're in full support of what you're doing. It's a big expenditure but if it does help some people - and definitely it will, and by the study you have done it sounds like it will be a significant help - I think it's very worthwhile.
Again, I just want to thank you for pushing these ideas forward because that's how things change. We have to change in Nova Scotia and work quickly to make it better for our residents and make people want to stay here and live here and make our economy better, because it all adds up. Thank you.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you. Keith.
MR. BAIN: Just a couple of questions. Do you have any indication as to how many 1-800 numbers the province would be able to discard if this system was in place?
MS. WOODMAN: An excellent question, and certainly one of the first things that we looked at when we were building a business case. I invite both Bob and Terry to extend on my answer, because I know you have the background.
First of all, I'd just like to identify that the province alone has 100 1-800 numbers. I brought a two-page brochure that just got printed off yesterday from the Community Services Web site. It's two pages and it identifies seven different 1-800 numbers that individuals can go to for seven different needs. Can you imagine what it's like to work through that? While a 1-800 number may be appealing because it's free, it isn't always the full array of answers to questions that people are seeking.
To be very specific on your question, we have not identified specific 1-800 numbers that would be eliminated. We do anticipate, however, that over time there would be fewer new 1-800 numbers introduced and there could well be a merging of some as the system unfolds. Really, 1-800 numbers and 211 interact very well together. What it does create is greater efficiency for the 1-800 systems and there are eventually savings realized through that. Let me be explicit.
The 211 system will prepare a caller, if they're referring a caller to a certain 1-800 number, and they will tell that caller what information they are going to need to have present while they're answering questions. They will make sure they're approaching the 1-800 number with the right understanding of what help they're going to get there and not get referred elsewhere. It's also a resource to 1-800 caller service providers - they also use 211 so it's not totally intended to replace, but rather to strengthen and augment the abilities of 1-800 numbers.
There are certainly situations in the States - and Terry, why don't I invite you to expand upon this one - where new 1-800 numbers have been avoided as a result of 211. The smoking cessation program - do you want to extend that?
MR. TERRY NORMAN: The State of Connecticut has been funding 211 for the past six years, and it was one of the first state-wide systems in the United States. United Way covers 15 per cent of the cost and the state covers 85 per cent of the cost there. The 211 in Connecticut was approached by the state with a proposal - they were looking to institute a new 1-800 number for smoking cessation and it was going to mean three people would have to be hired to do that. The 211 system was able to do it by hiring one additional person and fitting it into their system, so that saved the state substantial money and they said, we're happy to pay for one more person for 211 and let's do it.
Also, with 911, we've had a number of cases, approximately 30 per cent of the calls to 911 are inappropriate calls. When we had meetings across the province, pretty well at every meeting we had RCMP officers there to say, we really need this because we get a lot of inappropriate calls where we have to roll out a police car, we go there and we find it's really a social service issue and it would have been much better to deal with that through 211. So there are a lot of efficiencies that could be achieved through this system.
MR. BAIN: It's funny you mentioned that about the 911 because I attended a meeting with the United Way of Cape Breton and Deputy Chief Myles Burke was one of the ones who was in attendance and that was one of the things he said - that it would certainly lessen the burden on the 911 system because of the number of calls that go into 911 that aren't an emergency call for that system.
You've indicated it's been in effect in the United States - a fair number, over 80 per cent I believe and we have three Canadian cities - but have there been any issues that have arisen that might be a drawback? Has something happened along the way that's been corrected, or anything like that - unforseen and all of a sudden, bang, it's there?
MS. WOODMAN: Well, this may not be exactly what you're looking for but I can say that the greatest learning that we've had in comparing the experience at other 211 centres, it comes down to funding. There have been some attempts in the United States to gain private funding for 211 centres, and over time that has proven not to be a sustainable solution. Those United Ways have been left operating 211 centres and looking for new funding in order to keep them going.
Certainly in Canada, there's an increasing realization that government funding is a necessary part of the equation for 211. We've been posed the question, why provincial, because we are - although United Ways are contributing a small portion of this cost, we are asking this province to pay for the lion's share of these costs. The reason being this province has the jurisdictional responsibility, unlike - it's not the same across Canada, as you know, where there are differences in cities and municipal responsibilities. This province has the largest share of jurisdictional responsibilities for health, education, justice, community services, volunteer services, immigration, all departments, and we speak consistently of collaboration across departments - all departments that would stand to benefit in their delivery of customer support through this 211 service.
So where we may have started with a concept of gaining private funding, we've landed, through experience in comparing what the realities are in other centres in seeking primarily provincial funding.
MR. BAIN: Over the past while, being from a rural area, sometimes there are difficulties with the 911 system. How would this alleviate some of those problems that are
there with 911? Just because they can use - they would have access to the 211 for non-emergency situations.
MS. WOODMAN: Terry is right in underscoring that there's a range of estimates, but the one we've heard most consistently in looking at other centres is that about 30 per cent of the calls that are going into 911 are really more of a 211 need for that kind of information. So if you just think of it from a logical perspective, it's just the same as how it affects other government departments or volunteer organizations. If you're allowing the people to focus on their true mandate, why they're really there and not deal with all of the other calls for help, if you will, it's only going to improve the quality of the mandate, the determined mandate that should be delivered. That would be a critical one. Are there others that you would have?
MR. NORMAN: Well, there's also a role in times of disaster and we saw that with Hurricane Katrina. The 911 system went down when Katrina hit; 211 in Louisiana was also hard hit and in New Orleans it went down because the water came in before they could shut it down and turn it over. However, there was a small centre north of New Orleans that stayed open; it had three work stations there. Within eight hours, a large American bank donated 50 PCs that were dropped into that station, volunteers from United Way of America and United Way of Canada arrived within two days and had that fully operational; 911 was not working so 211 took all of those calls, including people on rooftops, and got help to them.
MR. BAIN: Interesting. Thank you.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Since this is a bit of a love-in, I wonder if the committee minds if I just make a comment and ask one question from the Chair. Thank you.
I just want to say that these two documents - the 52 reasons and the 211 Believers - are two of the most powerful arguments I've ever heard for any expenditure of money in this province. I just think that if we could improve the efficiency and reachability of all of these organizations through 211, can you imagine the tremendous positive impact that would have on our communities and our families? It's mind-boggling, it's fantastic.
My only question - I was at a meeting last week outside of metro, in a rural area, and brought up the topic of 211 and there was a question that I'm relaying from there. How would 211 relate to currently operating, county-wide Help Lines?
MS. WOODMAN: I'm going to invite Bob to speak to that because Bob Wright recently went to Pictou to present to the Pictou Help Line, and other related services and other community services in Pictou, to answer that very question.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: That would be great, thank you.
MR. ROBERT WRIGHT: One of the primary things is that the Help Lines in Nova Scotia are more for distress calls and suicide prevention. So 211 and Help Lines work together. In Edmonton and Calgary, in southern Ontario, like in Toronto, there are five other Help Lines within Toronto that 211 refers to. Additionally, the local Help Lines are usually good, they do have information referral services that they offer as well. So for a centralized 211 in Nova Scotia, they would be a local data-gathering partner. So they're there on the ground, they know what's available. For example, in Pictou County right now they've been there 25 years so when it comes to formulating that database for 211, they're going to be a key partner in helping to supply information, so it's a symbiotic relationship.
MS. WOODMAN: So, for instance, if you were living in Sydney and your parents were living in Pictou and you wanted to find out what services were available for them in Pictou, our database - the 211 database - would be that much more strengthened by the fact that there's an active partnership between 211 and the Help Line in that community.
We accept and know that there is concern among Help Line groups that this appears to be either a duplication or a replacement, but certainly the practice we've seen in other centres is that it's not unlike the 1-800 - it's not a replacement. It's an augmentation and a strengthening of the two distinct services.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: So let's play a role here because I'm still not clear on the answer. Let's say that I lived in Pictou and I called 211 and the operator - I forget what you call them - senses that I'm severely depressed, what would happen next?
MR. WRIGHT: The 211 operator will have the local Pictou Help Line number and would suggest that you call this number, perhaps there would be somebody there that you would like to speak with.
The information referral specialists at 211 are just that - information and referral. They do not counsel and the Help Lines are the counsellors. The Help Lines are the ones that take those calls at ten o'clock in the evening or one o'clock in the morning that say, I don't know what to do with my life, I don't know what I'm going to do to last out the night. That's where they're important and that's where 211 - that's not their role.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: But if it were a health crisis, the operator could then immediately dial 911 and make the connection.
MR. WRIGHT: Yes, there would definitely be a protocol for that as well. If that 211 calls turns into a 911 call after a brief discussion, there will be a protocol.
MS. WOODMAN: There actually would be a way to connect 911 into the call - not refer them to 911 but draw in the 911 caller live, and not disengage them until that connection is happening.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: That's very helpful because that's the only concern I've heard expressed and I wanted to be able to respond.
MR. WRIGHT: We hear that and that's why I was in Pictou a few weeks . . .
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Right.
MR. NORMAN: The same thing would happen with a suicide call like that. You would not be given a number, it would be a hot connection immediately and 211 would not sign off until a professional was on the line to deal with that person.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you. Keith has indicated a second question. I'll give everyone else the opportunity, as well, and then we'll go back to Manning.
MR. BAIN: I just had one and it's concerning comparing the 211 to 911 and I'll use the chairman as reference in a case like that - where somebody is depressed and everything. Confidentiality - because we know that all 911 calls are recorded - are 211 calls recorded?
MR. NORMAN: No, the 211 calls are confidential. The number does not come up when a caller comes in and so we cannot identify who that person is. However we can get the exchange they are calling from, so that way we can gather information. If we get 25 calls from one region about a health-related issue, we may have an epidemic on our hands and so community health would be alerted on that.
In the case of a true emergency, then the supervisor of the 211 centre can invoke an emergency and can then get the caller information and that is then transferred over to 911 or to a Distress Line. So that's a special situation where it has to have special authorization to gather that information which is normally confidential.
MR. BAIN: So is there a list compiled of every call that comes in? If something happens, we'll say the person is suicidal, that 211 has directed that call to the right organization?
MR. NORMAN: Every call is in a database and the purpose of the call so, when that caller hangs up, the information referral specialist then puts the information in about what referral they gave them, what it was. In fact, in approximately 10 per cent of the calls people will be asked, is it okay if we call you back in a couple of days to see how your referral went?
It's really good feedback for 211 because we need to know if we told them this was wheelchair accessible and it wasn't when they got there, we need to know that and go back and check it and change the database if that's the case.
MR. BAIN: I guess one of the reasons I asked that is because of any legal issue that might come up as a result of being misdirected.
MR. NORMAN: And to my knowledge, there has never been a legal issue regarding 211 but it's always tracked.
MR. BAIN: I played devil's advocate, I guess, when I asked the question.
MR. WRIGHT: Going back just to expand on the identification of the individual - I mean, people looking for help with addiction, things like that, they wouldn't call if they knew they were being tracked. So that's why we can't be tracking people calling in, like 911.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you. Would anyone else like a short snapper? No, okay, Manning.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: Madam Chairman, I'd like to move the following motion, that this committee support a province-wide 211 initiative and request Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations to also support this initiative.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Okay, seconded. Any discussion?
Would all those in favour of the motion please say Aye. Contrary minded, Nay.
The motion is adopted.
Well, I want to thank you and congratulate you. It was an excellent presentation, a very worthy cause. I'll just give you an opportunity, if you want to wrap up. Chris, you haven't had a chance to say anything so if you have anything you wanted to add or comment on, please feel free.
MR. CHRIS KEEVILL: Thank you very much, Madam Chairman. I would like to thank the committee for entertaining us and I would like to thank and appreciate the result. I was going to also bring up that I think it's important when you go back and speak to your respective caucuses that you point out the fact that although there's four people in front of you today and we may be representing the United Way and other United Ways, that in fact it's important, I think, to consider the motive and the source of what brings this forward.
This is essentially being brought from what I call the ground forces of social change in this province. That doesn't mean a dozen people and we're not here representing hundreds
of people or thousands of people. There are tens of thousands of people active in social change in the province, volunteers and staff and a number of agencies. So I think this really is a grassroots initiative and that would be, I think, an important point to be noted when you take this back to your respective caucuses.
So in closing, again I'd like to thank you all very much.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you. Catherine, do you want to wrap up?
MS. WOODMAN: That's fine.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: All right, thank you very much for coming this afternoon, we appreciate it. If the committee members could stay behind, we do have a little bit of business to discuss.
Okay, I believe there's a copy of the second letter from our committee to Minister d'Entremont, as instructed. Thank you very much for filling in for me at that last meeting, Keith, I appreciate it. So that letter has gone off and it's fairly recent - last week was it? So we haven't had a second response, just to give you an update on that.
The other issue I wanted to add to our committee business, in checking back through Hansard, it turns out that the Vice Chairman was elected by our committee back in - I'm not sure, I think it was October 2006, I believe, so we're open for nominations for that position and there has been interest expressed by Keith Colwell and I think there's general support for that.
MR. MANNING MACDONALD: I'll move that.
MR. ZINCK: I'll second.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Thank you, great. Any further nominations? Any further nominations? Congratulations, Keith.
MR. COLWELL: Thank you.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: So the two issues remaining on our agenda; discussion of the forum on disability issues, and actually it's related a bit to the date of the next meeting as well. Just to bring you up to date, we had agreed to have as our theme for this year's public forum, the issues facing persons with disabilities. Originally we had considered hosting it in June.
Now a couple of challenges have come up and I just want to run them by you, in case we want to possibly change the date of that forum. We don't know how long the legislative
session is going to last and secondly, because we don't meet in July and August, often we lose a little bit of momentum after and I'm sure there's going to be lots of recommendations and action called for out of that forum. I'm wondering if possibly scheduling it sort of mid- September might give us a chance to move on both recommendations.
Anyhow, I just wanted to bring it for discussion in case others were sharing some of those issues. Keith.
MR. COLWELL: Madam Chairman, I would support that and I think it's a good idea because if we start this, we wouldn't want to leave the people in limbo all through the summer. I mean, I think it's an excellent idea.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Okay, so do we have consensus then, that we'll reschedule the forum for mid-September? Okay. At our next meeting we - I think some time last year, I think it was after the Spring session, I believe, this committee agreed not to have meetings during the Spring session in particular, because of all the extra workload related to the Budget Estimates. So that being the case, it's quite possible that this could be our last meeting before the summer.
We have scheduled for our first meeting in June, if we were out of the Legislature - do you remember the groups? I think one was Seniors Pharmacare, and homelessness, yes. Okay, so I guess that one is going to be a little tentative. Since we're not going to have the forum, if we're out of the Legislature, then we will have a meeting that first Tuesday in June and we'll try to get witnesses for both the homelessness and the Seniors Pharmacare Program. Is that okay? Great.
Any other business that anyone wants to bring up?
I declare the meeting adjourned. Thank you.
[The committee adjourned at 2:42 p.m.]